Shifting Sand: The Art of Tending Goals

Around the time I was fifteen, I wrote to Marion Zimmer Bradley for the guidelines to her magazine and I collected every copy of Asimov’s Magazine I could get my hands on. I didn’t really know what it meant to be a writer but I knew I wanted to be one and I had it in my head that it meant submitting and joining SFWA.

Writing, and more specifically, writing for publication, means cultivating a discipline that borders on obsession. Setting goals, reaching goals, and yes, failing, is part of that process. Think of it like minding a garden — too much attention and you’ll kill your crop but so will neglect. This harvest, though, isn’t something you can read about in the Farmers Almanac. You’re tending you — your motivations and productivity, compensating for whatever life is throwing in front of you at that given moment, in order to blossom.

The setting of goals is individual. Its what you hope to achieve, but should be something that you have direct control over, i.e., revising a story for submission versus a story being accepted for publication.

A lot of the advice you’ve heard repeated ad nauseam is sound: read, write, revise, submit. These should pretty much be mantra.

There’s also the voluntary bits, such as: slushing, proofreading, attending workshops and conventions, social networking, etc. These can improve your abilities as a writer, give you new insights into publishing, open up new career paths, such as editing or proofreading or publishing, and introduce you to many wonderful people.

These extracurricular activities come at a cost, both in terms of money and time. You should evaluate each according to how it applies to your goals. Voluntary work is an additive, like fertilizer. It should enhance your work or life in some way, not choke the life out of it.

Semi-related side note: I was listening to the podcast Writing Excuses 6.17: Writing Assistants last week and they mentioned Kevin J. Anderson, who probably needs no introduction. On his desk, he has a piece of paper with the word “no” written in large letters where he can see it whenever he looks up as a reminder not to take on too many projects. I think that’s a good reminder for all of us. The demands on our time get worse, not better, with success.

Set a goal and try. Accept that failure will happen and figure out why when it does. Sometimes a transitory event will kills the crop — the equivalent of a freak hailstorm. It’s okay. Repeat methods that fail due to outside influence but if it doesn’t feel right or isn’t working for you, try something else.

I’ve tried more than a few things that didn’t work for me. Points systems that lead to rewards. Withholding simple pleasures. None of them worked for long. I found lists to be effective but they needed to be short, specific, and updated frequently.

I put a cork board up over my desk a few months ago. Along with a few personal keepsakes, I keep a few things pinned up as reminder of what I’m working towards. First there’s the Norse Crisis Flowchart, because it’s always good to remember to blame Loki. I have a list of goals for the current month. A growing collection of index cards with inspirational quotes. Finally, I have a spreadsheet of SFWA markets with response times and notes about what they’re looking for and my experiences submitting to them, that I refer to when I build my submission plan for new stories.

My 15 year old self didn’t know what he was doing, but that’s the thing about goals; if they’re want them bad enough, you don’t give up on them. You keep chipping away, for years or decades, if necessary.

What are your techniques for goaltending? What has, or hasn’t, worked for you?

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  1. Ben Godby
    15/10/2011 at 5:01 am Permalink

    I only keep goals so long as passion remains for them. I like what you say about not over-tending the garden, because it’s very easy to drive good writing and a fun practice into the ground by trying too hard. That’s why, sometimes, the most important goal is not to have any at all – other than to just let things grow.

  2. Galen Dara
    18/10/2011 at 11:22 am Permalink

    heh… personally, I think I need to steal that “NO” idea.  I tend to bite off more than I can chew and then have to worry about the quality of my work declining if I am spread to thin. 

    Goals: right now my goals are to do well on the projects I have said yes too.  Efficient time management sort of stuff.   But I want to start giving myself enough open space that I can start setting goals for skill development; learning new things (for me, an artist, I am always needing to learn new techniques, new softwares, expand my knowledge of what other artists are doing right now, etc etc etc)